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David Roberts

David Roberts

Posted: December 11, 2008 04:35 PM

Browner's Second Chance: Obama's Green Team Traces Its Roots Back to Gore


When Obama and Biden met with Al Gore on Tuesday, they were purposefully bland about what was discussed. Now that Obama has revealed his green team, it appears they may have been asking Gore's blessing. Of the four environment/energy appointees announced (or leaked), three worked in the Clinton/Gore EPA, and one, Carol Browner, was a staff aide and personal friend to Gore.

Nancy Sutley, Obama's choice to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), was special assistant to Browner when Browner ran the EPA. Lisa Jackson worked in the Superfund program out of the New York office and is reportedly good friends with Mary Nichols, another Clinton EPA vet on the short list for EPA.

There's some interesting history behind this team. Way back in the mists of time, when Gore was a Senator from Tennessee, he had among his aides Browner and Kathleen (Katie) McGinty. Both were close allies -- McGinty helped him research Earth in the Balance and accompanied him to Rio in 1992. Browner was his legislative director from '88-'91.

When Gore moved into the White House as VP, he was largely given control over the environmental portfolio; Browner was installed as head of EPA and McGinty as head of CEQ.

In their respective positions, the two clashed, with Browner pushing for strict air pollution regs and McGinty (and Gore) pushing her to water them down. This is from a 1999 National Journal piece:

In November 1996, [Browner] proposed a new set of clean air regulations so strict that criticism came not just from all the usual sources - Detroit, the oil industry, and the conservative press - but also from inside the administration. The White House economic team fought her, and not just behind closed doors. In early 1997, Gene B. Sperling, director of Clinton's National Economic Council, and Kathleen A. McGinty, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, publicly urged Browner to increase by 20 percent the limit on particulate matter allowed into the air. When Browner balked, McGinty - who, like Browner, was a former Gore aide - said publicly, "Who does she think she is, Joan of Arc?" Even two members of Gore's staff leaked word that the Veep was "furious" that his former aide hadn't consulted him more closely.

If Browner was intimidated by this kind of talk, she did a good job of hiding it. In interviews, she replied calmly that it was Gore himself who had taught her "to stand up for what I believe in."

... Clinton did ultimately back Browner.

"I think she put [Clinton] in a box from which he could not escape," said Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., an opponent of the tough standards.

(Not for nothing, this demonstrates Browner's storied ability to navigate bureaucracies without compromising policy.) Rumor has it that the bad blood never quite dissipated between Browner and McGinty, though they both remained close to Gore. McGinty was widely viewed as a lock for EPA head in a Gore administration and Browner, who advised Gore on his 2000 run, was thought to be in the running for chief of staff.

When Gore lost, Browner retreated to the private sector and McGinty decamped to Pennsylvania to become the states Director of Environmental Quality.

Fast forward to the present: Browner is running Obama's environmental transition and McGinty, though widely rumored as a shortlist pick for EPA, CEQ, or climate czar, ends up with ... nothing. Instead, Browner's top aide at EPA, Nancy Sutley, ends up at CEQ. Lisa Jackson, who worked in the EPA for 16 years -- eight under Browner, running the Superfund program -- ends up at EPA.

Browner herself is, of course, the ringmaster -- the hub of the Obama environmental team. Some lefties have complained that Obama is stocking his administration with Clinton vets/retreads, and that is certainly true here. It's Browner's Second Chance.

Enviros unhappy with the Clinton administration environmental record -- and that's quite a few of them -- may blanche at this, which taps into the ongoing argument over whether Obama's a real liberal, and what he meant by promising change. Do his appointments mean he's backing off on his progressive proposals or are they a sign that progressive is the new center? That argument, I must say, has gotten somewhat tedious. (Already! And he hasn't even taken office yet.)

My take is, when Obama promised change, he wasn't talking about plucking amateurs from outside government. He was talking about a change from incompetence and stagnation to competence and progress. The progress is in the agenda; the competence is in the staffing. Browner, Sutley, and Jackson are all known for effective administration. They are bureaucrats, in the Obama Era "bureaucrat" isn't an insult. Seasoned hands are back on the policy wheels, and this time, they'll have a chance to push for an agenda much bolder than anything contemplated under Clinton.

And strangely enough, the whole thing will be yet another chapter in Gore's Revenge.

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